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Our Modern Joan Crawford

Jack Conway’s 1929 romance Our Modern Maidens climaxes with a wedding.  Of course it does—it’s a romance, isn’t it?  But there’s something decidedly off about this wedding—indeed the entire film seems to strike a strange note.  It could be argued that the film’s fundamental weirdness is a consequence of its star, Joan Crawford.

In connection with TCM’s tribute to the films of Joan Crawford, this transitional late-period silent romantic comedy was screened already.  Normally I try to write about movies before they air, but I had Arbuckle on the brain last weekend.  Now, by “transitional” I mean it was a silent film with a synchronized soundtrack consisting of music and sound effects but not voices.  But it’s also transitional in the sense that it is probably best understood as a “Pre-Code” film, for its sexual content—but we’ll get there.

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Joan Crawford was not known for her work in comedies.  With her fierce eyes and controlled demeanor, she was better suited to dramas and suspense thrillers, but that didn’t stop her from trying.  Our Modern Maidens is a case in point of why Crawford was an unlikely comedy star—the film is almost unrecognizable as a comedy, thanks in large measure to her grim, determined performance.  There is one stray moment of fleeting abandon when she cuts loose with a wild dance number while wearing practically nothing—but for much of the picture she is playing it straight (you might recall that Ida Lupino made the same choice to play her scenes straight, despite being cast in a Jack Benny anything-but-the-kitchen-sink vaudeville extravaganza called Artists and Models).

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The dominant form of Hollywood romances during the heyday of Crawford’s career in the 1930s and 40s were screwball comedies.  The basic recipe for a screwball comedy was this: start with a female lead, and two men.   The dramatic tension, the comedy, and the romance all arise out of the different life choices represented by these two men.

In one corner, you have the potential mate who ticks all the boxes.  He’s what I call “the right wrong man.”  As I wrote here some time ago, Ralph Bellamy made a stock in trade playing these kinds of characters—safe, dependable, decent men.  It’s easy to itemize the ways in which this man would be the right man for the leading lady: he is from the right social and economic caste, he is approved of by her folks, they’ve been an item since childhood, or he represents financial status and comfort.  Or some combination of those factors.

The problem is, true love isn’t then product of cold calculations.  The heart wants what the heart wants, and so enter the irrational choice—“the wrong right man.”

He is the polar opposite of the right wrong man—he’s unruly and boorish, he’s poor, his values are individualistic, he’s not at all what the woman or her family planned.  And indeed he’s so obviously wrong that for most of the film they clash in hostile combat.  That combat, however, teaches them more about one another than anyone else in the world knows.  The fighting is its own form of intimacy, and leads inevitably to affection, and then to love.

And theirs is the “right” pairing—not for any rational reason, mind you.  The rational reasons to marry someone are the ones that link her to the wrong man—in other words, these films define true love and romance in fundamentally illogical, irrational terms.  It is something to be felt, not calculated.

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And if there’s one thing Joan Crawford was not, it’s illogical.  From the very start, she was the definition of self-possession, and her career is a case study in control.

In her earliest screen appearances, she was ill-used.  Take for example her role as Harry Langdon’s love interest in Tramp Tramp Tramp.  She barely appears in the movie, and has no characterization to speak of.  She’s just a pretty face—and reportedly she was all but unable to keep a straight face during her scenes with Langdon.  The producers of Tramp Tramp Tramp would have been better off casting any pretty wanna-be starlet who either had no sense of humor or bad eyesight and therefore could stand stock still and look gorgeous while Harry Langdon mooned about her—Crawford didn’t fit the bill.  This didn’t use her talent well—so why wait for producers to figure out how to use her?

She took her career development into her own hands.  Thanks to her own relentless self-promotion she pushed her way to the forefront of Hollywood actresses.  She would come to be best remembered for roles as hard-bitten careerists—like Mildred Pierce, or to be honest Mommy Dearest, a film which didn’t even include her at all, just Faye Dunaway doing a cruel Crawford caricature.  But these images stick because there was just enough truth to them—behind Crawford’s legendary eyes is a core of steel.

The film that launched Crawford as a star was 1928’s Our Dancing Daughters.  She had maneuvered herself into the lead role in a film about the drifting wayward morals of today’s youths—and in which she was put forth as the definitive example of the American flapper.

It was a substantial hit, and so the production team reunited the following year for Our Modern Maidens—not a sequel, but a similar film in the same general vein.

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Crawford plays Billie, a free-spirited flapper who is engaged to her childhood sweetheart Gil (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) but is keen to keep their engagement a secret for the time being.  She has a plan to engineer a plum job for Gil, and then they can make their love public and get married, once he has the social and financial status Billie thinks she can work up for him.

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The thing is, her plan involves throwing herself at influential politico Glenn Abbott (Rod La Rocque), nicknamed “Dynamite” for his womanizing ways.  Billie is literally playing with Dynamite as she tries to seduce him into giving Gil a prominent appointment—all the while sending Glenn an unmistakable set of signals that she doesn’t genuinely mean.  When Glenn gets her alone in his cabin, he has certain sexual expectations of her that she rejects.  “What’s the matter?” he crows, “I thought you were a modern!”

Meanwhile, in her zeal to attend all of her energies on Glenn, Billie has systematically rejected Gil and all but thrown him into the arms of her friend Kentucky (Anita Page).  And they’ve grown quite fond of one another…

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Which brings us to the wedding, which is where this story started up at the top of the page.  Billie and Gil are going to be married—and the whole vibe is wrong.  The entire film has been about developing an alternate set of pairings—Billie and Glenn, Gil and Kentucky.  Glenn is fuming at Billie’s betrayal of him, and, well, you see, Kentucky is pregnant with Gil’s child.  For Billie and Gil to go off into the sunset in each other’s arms is going to leave a ruined battlefield of casualties.

The logic of the romantic comedy template tells us that she should break up with the “safe” choice in favor of the “wrong” man—but those demarcations have gotten seriously confused.

Billie sought out Glenn for entirely calculated, selfish reasons.  He was targeted because of his social status and influence—these are the markers of the safe choice.  But at the same time, he has come to see her manipulative, deceitful nature better than anyone else, and in that sense he’s a far better match for her than Gil.

And so this is the finale the film opts for—Billie chooses Glenn after all, and lets her childhood sweetie marry Kentucky.  Happy endings all around, if you don’t look too closely.

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It is at this point we should take not of exactly who her costar is in this film—Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. plays Gil.  He was also Crawford’s first husband, and their wedding had been leveraged as a promotional gimmick for Our Modern Maidens.  Crawford’s romance with Fairbanks seems to have had some of the same degree of calculation behind it as Billie’s plans.  The Fairbanks family was Hollywood royalty, and by marrying into the house of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, Crawford was ensuring her own status.

I don’t mean to be cynical here, or to suggest that Crawford and Fairbanks didn’t share something real between them.  But let’s be honest—marrying into Pickfair was just about the best career move Crawford could have come up with, and she didn’t stay married to Junior for terribly long.

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Joan Crawford engineered a star-making role for herself, and then used that stardom to make a film about a woman who engineers her own social success—and it is played without irony or opprobrium.

6 Responses Our Modern Joan Crawford
Posted By Tom S : January 11, 2014 5:43 am

Did she ever have a better role than Vienna in Johnny Guitar? She gets to be an iconoclast, a powerful, independent woman, a schemer with a heart of steel- and, unquestionably, the hero, and the woman with whom all the movie’s sympathies lie. It feels like a part that might have been written for Marlene Dietrich- she’s named Vienna, and Marlene had a history of that kind of role- but Crawford fits it better than anyone else could have. The coldness of her screen persona makes her _more_ likable, since it’s contrasted with Mercedes McCambridge’s flaming hatred at someone who succeeded in breaking from society, and as much I love Marlene, her natural comfort in those kind of surroundings would have weakened the drama of the movie.

(Though reportedly, Crawford was incredibly cruel to McCambridge on set, for fear that she would steal the movie.)

Posted By LD : January 11, 2014 11:23 am

Reminder: On the dvd of MILDRED PIERCE there is the documentary “Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star.

Posted By teresa havlik : January 11, 2014 3:37 pm

Looved these earlier Joan Crawford movies!

Posted By george : January 11, 2014 9:01 pm

OUR MODERN MAIDENS is my favorite Crawford silent. (I know; THE UNKNOWN is a better movie, but I think of that as a Chaney movie, not a Crawford vehicle.) Doug Jr’s impersonations of John Gilbert, John Barrymore and his father make it especially memorable.

Who wouldn’t want to live in that world of jazz parties and Art Deco sets? Even if life consisted of constant romantic turmoil, at least in MGM’s version of life.

Joan and Doug did stay married for four years, which is much longer than, say, Nicholas Cage and Lisa Marie Presley.

Posted By Jack Favell : January 12, 2014 4:08 pm

First of all, let me say I really love your column. I always enjoy your writing and the deeper twists you bring to the discussion of classic films.

Generally speaking, I think your portrait of Joan is spot on. Doug and Joan remained good friends long after their divorce. I think perhaps you’ve bought into a bit of a stereotype of Crawford. For years I thought that she married to get herself ahead in show business, based on no actual evidence except my perception of her as a driven actress coming up from nothing. Lately I’ve delved into the reasons behind my beliefs, and looked at her relationship with Doug Jr., and the story of her gold digging just doesn’t hold water. I wasn’t very much of a Crawford fan over the years, I’ll admit. Now I find I like her performances very much, she always gets the job done well. I’ve chatted with one of her grandchildren, who took away the image of the harridan I had in my mind that caused my doubts about her in the first place.

There’s no doubt from the photos of Joan and Doug that there was some really incredible chemistry between the two, and the fact that they remained on good terms long after their marriage makes me begin to doubt her reputation as a gold digger.

Joan was on the verge of becoming the biggest star in Hollywood when they met, and was more of a draw than Fairbanks Jr. at the time. Of course the marriage was a big event that kept both their names in the limelight, but I don’t think that I’ve ever read anywhere any real evidence of her using Fairbanks as a springboard to Hollywood stardom. I’ve begun to believe that it might be a fiction created because she had a strong personality and came from nothing. Hollywood has always been a cruel place for outsiders. Though that can be used as a reason why Joan might have wanted to legitimize herself through marriage to Hollywood royalty, it also could be seen as the reason why this rumor has persisted for years.

Joan brought Doug along to her Grauman’s hand print ceremony. He had not been asked to memorialize his hand prints in cement. Was this the act of a woman who thought herself inferior or who was being helped by her relationship to Doug Jr.? I think maybe they helped each other overcome their respective fears and upbringing.

It’s easy to believe the rumor about Joan marrying up, because Joan’s films and characters seemed to mimic her own story much of the time, and she desperately wanted to fit in. She definitely tried to better herself. However, writing about her motives for marriage without really backing that up with evidence is a bum rap, and it’s too bad because I thought you were more thoughtful than to take stereotypes for granted.

That being said, I enjoyed your analysis of Our Modern Maidens, and the style of your writing. This movie and Our Dancing Daughters are perfect examples of why Joan Crawford became a star. Her best films take into account the opposites in her personality – the good bad girl, who may be fast but has morals underneath it all; or the girl from the wrong side of the tracks who ends up more elegant and sophisticated than the high class folks she’s traveling with, as in 1931′s Possessed or The Last of Mrs. Cheyney. The two flapper films really display her contradictions perfectly. Perhaps we can agree that these contradictions in Joan’s personality can apply to her real life marriage to Doug Jr. as well? – that she married him to legitimize herself, and that she loved him deeply at the same time.

Posted By Mythical Monkey : January 18, 2014 2:22 pm

I’ve got to go with your analysis of Joan Crawford in Modern Maidens. I really like Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Anita Page, but Crawford, not so much. She’s over-eager and over-earnest here. In a couple of years, she dials it down and serves up terrific work in Dance, Fools, Dance and Grand Hotel, but in the silent era, she’s not there yet.

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